15 May 2017

Hunt says Coalition lifts bulk-billing


The Coalition and Labor have resumed hostilities over affordability in general practice, with the government taking credit for what it claims is record-high bulk-billing.

The federal government has reopened the war of words over bulk-billing rates, saying new figures for the March quarter show Medicare is “stronger than ever”.

Health Minister Greg Hunt said bulk-billing was at record highs, with more people visiting their doctors without having to pay than ever before.

“Now what’s driving it is the fact that you have a government that is investing in Medicare, we’re guaranteeing it,” Mr Hunt told ABC radio on Monday.

Going on the same figures, however, the Labor opposition said bulk-billing for GP services had in fact dropped, while patients’ out-of-pocket costs jumped 11% in the three months to a national average of $36.77.

Increases in some states and territories had reached almost 14%, it said. In NSW, the increase from the last quarter of 2016 was 13.5%, and in the ACT 13.9%.

The department reported bulk-billing rates hit 85.6% in the first three months of 2017– the highest on record for a March quarter – compared with 85.1% a year before.

“More Australian patients are visiting their doctor without having to reach for their wallet than ever before,” it said.

The RACGP has long argued that the department of health’s bulk-billing figures are misleading because they reflect services rather than patients and cover a range of primary-care services beyond GP care.

Shadow Minister for Health and Medicare Catherine King said patients’ out-of-pocket costs “will only get worse” as the rebate freeze continues for another year on GP visits and two years for specialist consultations and allied health.

“On the day before the (2016) election Malcolm Turnbull promised that no Australian would pay more to visit the doctor – the government’s own data is proof that this was a complete and utter lie,” Ms King said.

On ABC radio, Mr Hunt said in order to support bulk-billing rates the government had “just reindexed the Medicare rates with bulk billing, in particular, increasing from 1 July this year”.

He was referring to the reindexation of bulk-billing incentives for children and most needy patients, taking effect in July.

He also said the government would save health dollars as a result of the “compacts” it struck with the AMA, the RACGP and other bodies, as well as efficiencies that would arise from the national adoption of the My Health Record.

“Because of the landmark partnerships we’ve struck with the AMA and the Royal Australian College of GPs, with the pharmaceutical manufacturers, Medicines Australia and the Pharmacy Guild – we’re able to make real reductions in the cost of many things such as our medicines, reductions in the risk of duplication of services through the rollout of a national My Health Record, which gives each individual the ability over the course of their lives to review what treatments they’ve received,” he said.

In the three-month period, Australians accessed 110.2 million GP services – up by 3.6 million services, the department said. The total cost of all Medicare benefits paid in the period was $16.3 billion, a rise of 2.8%.

Indexation of standard GP and specialist consultations will resume on July 2018, and specialist procedures and allied health from 1 July 2019.